It was the end of summer and the onset of September and as I approached ArthurFest, familiar festival fears took hold. Arriving late and into a sweltering afternoon, I entered the inexplicably long line snaking around the adjacent service road. With shade in short supply and the shaky ill-effects of an evening’s indiscretions surging through me, I claimed my space in the sun, seeping sweat through my black t-shirt. With heat beating down on the throng of indie kids and aging punks, I stood stationary, managing no forward progress.
This was what I had expected. It was all just too impossibly perfect to ever actually happen. Sonic Youth, Spoon, Cat Power, The Juan Maclean, Comets on Fire, Six Organs of Admittance, Earth, Sunn 0))), the mighty Merzbow, and more all together for two days in the soft rolling landscape of the beautiful Barnsdale Gallery Park? No one could really pull this off.
Surely it was a set-up, like that festival at City College where the cops busted it after discovering that no one ever actually secured a permit for the thing. I should have seen a still unsigned Sublime that day along with an obscure band from Bakersfield called Korn. Instead I went home early and ate ice cream. Of course, that was 10 years ago. But just like my craving for ice cream, my skepticism remains; I expected no improvement man’s ability to organize an independently-promoted rock festival.
The Juan Maclean
At that point an appealing young woman right between plus-size Hot Topic kids and slim fits at Torrid strutted by, with black vinyl gleaming reflected rays. Screeching “It’s 90 degrees out here and I’m in fucking fishnets!” into her cell phone, she bobbled past in six inch heels. Upon catching myself in the act, I recalled that ogling goth girls had already taken me down a dark path I vowed never to travail again. I needed to get out of the sun. Fast. Abandoning my place in line I set out in search of shade. And ice cream.
With nothing back along the route I’d already taken, I wandered behind the line and deeper into the park. Soon I found myself strolling into the festival itself. Entirely unguarded at their back end, I entered easily and rather unexpectedly. There on stage was Carla Bozulich fronting her surprisingly metallic new project called The Night Porter. Up ahead stood a small circle of vendors, food booths, information tables, and a little pink ice cream truck driven down from heaven in an answer to this drunkard’s prayer. Conflicted by the desire to consume ice cream and the fear of exposing the naked wrist that would betray my trespass, I opted to hold off, hide my hands in my pockets, and just enjoy the reprieve of shady trees and a cool breeze.
Immediately I was struck by the fact that this impossibly perfect festival was indeed happening. The air was exploding with the potential of so many unconventional aesthetics convening and communing all at once. Revived by the energy around me and wanting no further delay, I raced back to the front entrance to find (surprise) the line moving briskly.
Ice cream in hand and banded around the wrist, I set out to soak it in. Just finishing up a set, the thumb-thumping, snap-and-frolic, twin bass interplay of Dos gave me a feeling of pure uncut joy. Smiling as they intertwined lines like jazz players, both seemed divorced from their hardcore histories. Still, now and again a hammer-on would hit so hard that the thought of it jolted back: this was indeed Kira Roessler from Black Flag sharing a stage with thunderbrooming Mike Watt of The Minutemen.
As they left the shade of the secondary Pine Stage, The Radar Bros. were claiming a sunny spot on the primary Lawn Stage. Summoning up the spirit of Neil Young and sending him out softly through the slowly swelling crowd, their summertime, back porch, country rock had me feeling that it was time to lay down the stadium-like seven dollars for a beer.
Having done so, I headed back towards the pines to see Nora Keyes in all her post-Centimeters goth-cabaret glory. Stylized and intentionally melodramatic, her animated albeit slightly annoying act soon had my head filled with awkward images from a grim, goth past. I quickly moved onto the third stage at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater to see some of Residual Echoes‘s set.
Here I was met by another line and a big problem. While a couple thousand tickets could be sold at each day of the festival, only about three hundred people could be seated in the theater. There was already a long line and about an hour wait. With rare performances by Merzbow, Earth, and Sunn 0))) all booked to play the space, it was clear that sacrifices would have to be made.
Still, traffic proved free and easy between the larger stages so I ventured back to the lawn. Wolfmother arrived with unmatched intensity. Bellowing like an adolescent Ozzy, Andrew Stockdale and his trio charged through hard rock clichés with such conviction that no one seemed to notice the antics weren’t their own. Equal parts Black Flag and Black Sabbath, they threw themselves about the stage in a sonic frenzy.
Wolfmother’s incendiary set obliterated any chance of appreciating the soft strumming folk of Viking Moses. With the line for the theater too impenetrable to make it in for what I would later learn was a stunning set by Circle, I decided it was time to visit the taco stand serviced by local hotspot Malo. More ice cream would follow.
Back at the main stage, Sunburned Hand of the Man opened their set of improvised incantations. Clubs and sticks pounded the stage, a trumpet was used in an unconventional manner, and a black baby doll was bandied about in what, ultimately, amounted to a much more boring affair than one would expect, especially given all the props and passion on display. Arousing interest wasn’t an issue but doing something with it proved a bit more difficult. Songs built up and up to the point of near explosion but never quite managed to make the necessary, transcendent transitions.
Man’s shenanigans left me bored by Winter Flowers who played amongst the pines looking like they walked right off the set of A Mighty Wind. Failing to engage me, I soon found myself back at the beer gardens, another seven dollars short.
The Black Keys
Brandishing a slight buzz, I was ready for things to get incredible. The Black Keys made that happen, bringing the boogie in a foot-stomping storm of barnburning blues. Transcending notions of age and race, these two Ohioans in their twenties sounded every bit as sincere, heartfelt, and funky as their elders. With the recent passing of R.L Burnside acknowledged on the “R.I.P. R.L.” shirt worn by drummer Pat Carney, it was reassuring to note the spirit of his work living on there in the fading summer sun.
At the end of their set it was off to the theater for an anxious wait in line to see the single biggest name in noise: Masami Akita, more commonly know as Merzbow. As reclusive as he is prolific, appearances by Merzbow are a most precious rarity. I’d laid down money for tickets months in advance on his name alone. His relentless pursuit of a recklessly idiosyncratic sound has made him an existential hero of mine. So as difficult as it was to pass on a seething set by Sleater-Kinney on the Lawn Stage, it was imperative I see Merzbow.
Mercifully, I made it in to the theater and up to the second row with enough time to see him finishing his sound check. Blips, blasts, and bursts of sound ricocheted around the hall as he fine-tuned his multi-track audio assault. When the mix was right, one last command was issued via his sound tech, “More up front.” With that the audience exploded into cheers and the lights dimmed.
Seated between two laptops, Akita personified stoicism with his steadfast expression and deliberately considered movements. As both screens flashed and flickered across his darkened glasses, waves of sound flooded from the speakers. Entirely antithetical to his presence, his noise enveloped in an overload of sensory pleasure. Chaotic, insistent, and soothing all at once, his music moved from frightening to arousing and on into a meditative lull. The physical power of the performance made itself known by vibrating a large monitor off the floor and a full four feet behind the seated Akita. While that one incident may have been the most movement anywhere in his whole set, Merzbow still made good on his promise of an incredibly unusual and exotic experience.
Leaving the theater, there was still enough time to catch the tail end of T Model Ford. Well into the evening now, the 85 year-old Ford had more bodies moving in the crowd than anyone else all day. As The Black Keys looked on from behind, the friendly sense of fun on stage was infectiously impossible to resist. Still, Sonic Youth was about to take the main stage and I wasn’t about to miss a single strangled note from those monumental art rockers.
Regrettably, Sonic Youth suffered some catastrophic sound problems. Since most everything they do is already on the edge of improper, engineering their set is no enviable task. The sound crew at ArthurFest failed from the start and never fully recovered.
Wallowing in a murk of wobbly bass, the band just couldn’t get their vocals up over the dissonant depths without an unintended squeal of embarrassing feedback. These problems took the biggest toll on Kim Gordon, who soon found herself uncertain and withholding.
Thankfully Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Jim O’Rourke all threw themselves into the night with unrestrained abandon. As always, Ranaldo held down the set with his peculiar prowess while Moore stole the show with his ageless invocation of all things punk. Eventually they pulled it all together for a requisite albeit impassioned rendition of “Teen Age Riot”. Whether the mix had ever improved or not was inconsequential; timeless songwriting like that knows no technical obstruction.
Ultimately it was a forgivably disappointing performance from a band that is almost always inspiring. Still others in the crowd took issue with their lackluster set and heckled them from the anonymity of the festival audience. “Shoot the sound guy!” one man shouted. “Sonic geriatrics!” cried out another. Still the most inexplicable criticism came from a drunken middle-aged man repeatedly chanting “Pretentious! Pretentious!”
Decrying Sonic Youth for being pretentious seemed like criticizing Christ for being without sin and it wasn’t long before someone else retorted with “Dude! It’s Sonic Youth!” The drunk carried on, but after a few hard looks from the audience around him he moved off into the night. Soon enough the day was done and we all dispersed on to our various inclinations as well.